“Are you going?” Stewart asked for the third time.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m going. I am just waiting until Nick comes down so I can say goodbye.”
They were in the bar, it was crowded, so full, in fact that Gus was sitting on a tall stood across from them instead of in his usual booth.
“It’ll be a long wait.”
“What do you know?” Max said turning to him.
“He went on a bit of a walk about with the guys he came here with. He won’t be back for a while.”
“Just reach out and find him.” Gus said.
“I told him I wouldn’t do that.”
“But you will, if I don’t come clean, right?”
“I give it 9 to 1 odds.”
“Asshole.” Max said. “Are you going to tell me?”
“Don’t kill the messenger. They are heading up to look at the rift. Hank and Juan know the way.”
Max clenched his fists, “It’s dangerous…”
Stewart put a hand on his shoulder, “Go look after Sarah and Jessica, pop back to Nick when you have them, make it a family reunion.”
“Nick can take care of himself. Plus, he has his two friends with him.”
“A half zombie and a power sick super human? Not exactly the guardians I would have sent. No, I need to go get him.”
“Gus.” Stewart said, not taking her eyes from Max.
“Nick has a talent that rivals anyone’s I know. He really is right; He can take care of himself.”
“No, I don’t trust you, Gus. You’re up to something.”
“I’m always saving the world and you do trust me; you’re just trying to hurt my feelings. To think I was going to go after your offspring for you.”
“I’m the perfect candidate; powerful, a maxson, can see the future and all.”
“How does it all end, Gus?” Stewart asked.
“Nah-uh, none of that.” Gus told Stewart, addressing Max again he said, “I can catch up to your offspring though and you can always say you needed to talk to me and ‘oh hey, Nick!’ when you do. See? The perfect plan.”
“Maybe. I just don’t know; he shouldn’t be out there alone.”
“He made it here. For Christ’s sake he isn’t a child anymore Max!” Stewart said, tossing the towel she had been using to the top of the bar. Make a goddamned decision and do something.” She waved her hands in the air to emphasize her statement, “This…this apathy, this sitting around too afraid to do anything, it has to stop!”
“You sit around here too!” Max said, “Last I knew you weren’t exactly a lightweight! Why aren’t you changing the world for good? Why haven’t you gone and got your family and friends? Why are you waiting for me?”
“Max, I love you, but this is enough! I have gone out; my family is dead, my friends are gone, probably dead. We weren’t all as lucky as you to have survived with three quarters of our lives intact. I go out, more and more lately, I don’t sleep, you don’t either, do you think I just sit in my rooms for 5 hours a night holding my knees to my chest, rocking back and forth in despair? Hah! You know where your wife is. Go get her, if that’s what you want! We have blood enough to make her a super zombie and have had the ability for years…what are you waiting for?”
Max muttered something under his breathe.
“I said, alright. I’ll go tonight.”
“Go. Now.” Stewart told him, “Really what difference is twelve hours going to make? Just go and be done with it. If you wait, you’ll have all day to convince yourself a breakthrough is coming, and you won’t go. Honestly, Max, I can find you anywhere, just like you can find me. At the first sign of trouble, I’ll be coming to get you.”
The two stared at each other in silence for a few moments, the crowded bar had created an opening around them, an artificial bubble, but the talking and chatting had continued unabated, for all appearances, no one was paying them undue attention. Gus knew otherwise, but kept his face on Max and Stewart.
“Fine.” Max finally relented. He turned and stalked off to the far door that led to the hotel rooms.
Gus let out a huge sigh of relief, causing Stewart to notice him and turn her baneful glare his way. “It’s a dangerous game you’re playing here.”
“Don’t you mean ‘we’re’ playing?”
“Fine. I always get the impression that you’re ‘handling’ me, Gus. Me and Max and anyone else you need for whatever your hidden goal is.”
“As much as anyone can herd cats, I’m ‘handling’ you. My goal is nothing less than saving the world; I’ve never been shy about talking about that.”
“Who rules this saved world you go on and on about?” Stewart asked him.
“I’m working on that.”
“Is it us?”
“Jane, if I have my way, you, Max, me…none of us would ever happen. I can’t see me and you in any of my futures. You wonder why I stick around here? You and Max are just not there. I can’t have future conversations with you, not in a direct manner. You guys are the only surprises I have left in my life. If you’ll excuse me, I have an end to tie up.”
“Get ready for a blood influx.”
“Shit. Want me to…?”
“No, you have morals, a sense of right and wrong. I can see the future and won’t hesitate or waffle. Meet you around back in…12 minutes.”
Stewart nodded. “I’ll get some Gabriel to assist.”
“No, get Molly. Gabriel should be sent downtown for plantains.”
“Why…got it. Go.”
A few minutes after he left Stewart sent Gabriel to the market for the plantains and moments after that his current girlfriend, Lena, left out the beach door. Lena walked south until she reached the abandoned hulk of an old boat, she ducked inside and ran into Gus, who was standing there with a rather large and archaic portable radio in one hand.
“Sorry, Dona Lena.” He swung the radio in an arc over his head, Lena put up her hand to block the blow, but the heavy radio broke her arm and the corner of it cut a long gash down from the top of her skull to almost her chin. She started to scream and fell back, but Gus was on her in an instant, stabbing her with the knife he always carried, making a fast end to her. After she was down, he stopped the radio into the ground and cut the cord with his bloody knife. Once the radio was destroyed he hefted Lena’s body over his shoulder and carried her back to the bar, leaving a splattered blood trail behind him. Gus passed many people on the way; none of them said or did anything. A sign of the times when I can murder someone in broad daylight, with witnesses and no one bats an eye. Stewart and Molly were at the service door waiting for him.
“Lena?” Molly asked, “Why Lena? Gabriel is going to be heartbroken.”
Ignoring Molly, Gus said, “I found the radio. I waited by it and she showed up, all too anxious to make a call to the Cubans.”
Stewart nodded, “There was always something off about her. I mean Gabe doted on her, but she was always aloof.”
“Dead eyes.” Gus said.
“Dead eyes, yeah.” Molly echoed, “She was feeding them information?”
“You know the Cubans have been restless, Marco is keen for round two.” Stewart said. They Navy and people of Miami had fought off a Cuban attempt to seize south Florida years ago. Things had been stable ever since, but lately Marco Rafeal, Cuba’s newest despot, had been making noise about unifying all the people under one banner. Perry, the naval commander, had been keeping an eye on him, using ‘friends’ such as Gus to route out Marco’s spies and assassins.
“We never learn, do we?” Gus said, putting the body on a hard-used tarp in the alley. Molly tied the woman’s legs and hoisted her up like a deer due field dressing and Stewart drained the woman’s blood. The blood would be preserved and sold to zombies who needed it or just wanted it. In exchange they brought goods; food, alcohol and commodities that were in demand. The new economy ran on blood.
“Which eater is up next?” Stewart asked Molly. The café had ten cells on the bottom floor, converted hotel rooms with cinder blocks lining the walls. Inside they kept zombies, shamblers, who would attack any living that they ran into, hoping to feed from them. The hotel kept these rooms and offered this service to bring the shamblers up to a certain level of functionality. Slain humans, those recently dead, at least, were thrown into the cells and the zombies ate them. A great way to dispose of bodies after harvesting the blood from them.
“Uh, seven is up next. I figure we’ll quarter her and do seven through ten.” Molly said. Employees of Max’s Café American learned the ropes quickly, if they were squeamish, a rarity these days, they worked the bar. Molly had started as a server and worked her way up to management, but that didn’t mean she didn’t get her hands dirty. Max and Stewart led by example and when there were bodies to be cut apart and distributed among the feeding dead, they were there. Families paid a lot to bring loved ones back to some semblance of their former selves. Friends often paid more. Blood and goods weren’t the only currency; information was vital too, and it was amazing how much work around the Café was done by tradesmen with a family member or friend in one of the cells.
“Yeah, lets get the head and shoulders off first.” Stewart said.
“In case Gabe gets back early.” Molly said, “Makes sense. Could not have covered her up for the walk back?”
Gus shook his head, “This won’t get back to Gabriel. Unless you, me or Jane tells him.”
Max walked out the back door. “Stewart I…oh fuck, it that Lena? Gabe’s going to be heartbroken! What happened?”
“I thought you were going?” Stewart asked.
“Went. This first. Then me.”
“She was radioing the Cubans, I presume to tell them you’d be gone.” Gus said, “She…and they, have no idea that ‘gone’ for you is mere minutes, not enough time to launch a takeover.”
“Enough time for a sniper to activate.” Stewart said, “To make a move on me or Perry.”
“Or you.” Max added. “Damn that’s a shame. Honestly though she always had ‘dead eyes’ to me, like she was just playing Gabe.”
Stewart snorted and nodded. “Now you.”
“She was gone, Stewart.”
Max shook his head, “Sarah. The house was still there, but the attic was open and she wasn’t in it.”
“Any chance she just fell out and wandered off?”
“We sealed her in.” Max said.
“That’s…not good. This is bad. You know it was Draper, right?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“That bastard probably foresaw the say he would need leverage on you. He went and got what he could.” Stewart said.
“What are you talking about?” Molly asked.
“Personal stuff. Be a doll, Molly and bring this section in to seven? Gus, can you lend her a hand?”
“Fuck you very much. You always ask me to leave when things get interesting.” Gus said. Molly just put her head down and finished sawing through Lena’s rib cage.
As soon as the two of them were gone with the most recognizable part of Lena, Stewart said, “It’s gotta be Draper, who else even knows?”
“Well, lots of people. It’s not like we were alone there, hell my house had more people in it than a Thanksgiving dinner.”
“What about Tom or Amelia?” Stewart asked.
“How would I know? I haven’t thought of them in years…they probably haven’t thought of us for just as long.”
“I wonder what ever happened to them?”
“Probably living a happy life on a farm, married with six kids by now.” Max said, “At least I like to think of them like that. Fat and happy.”
Stewart shook her head, “You know that’s not how things work. Plus, I had the impression Tom was homosexual?”
“Really? I don’t think so, I mean I barely knew him, back at work. Saw him at the company shindig at Elitch Gardens, maybe he fixed my computer a time or two…”
“So, he didn’t blatantly ask you to suck his dick in the company showers? How would you know otherwise?”
“I don’t know. Wait, how would YOU know?” Max asked.
Stewart tapped herself on the chest, leaving bloody imprints on her blouse, “Trained professional, remember?”
“You’re telling me cops are trained to recognize homosexuals?”
Stewart laughed, “Almost got you.”
Max laughed too and then shook his head, “There were zombies there too. Jimbo? Some others, not to mention that other little boy.”
“A lot of suspects, none of whom would have the motivation like Draper.”
“Draper wasn’t there. How would he even know where I lived?”
“He and Bill travelled back together, Bill was in the Army. Draper was an officer. Maybe they socialized. Draper meets Nick, finds out where he used to live…it’s not a far stretch. Hell, Max law enforcement had a shared database with driver’s licenses from all the states. Draper knew your name and your general vicinity before the outbreak. How many Max Allmonds are there in the Denver area? Even if he didn’t know you lived in Arvada, something he could have found out from Bill, he could have found your pre-outbreak address with a simple search.”
“We know the Iowan’s have their phones back up. We know universities were big in Iowa, ever here of Iowa State or University of Iowa? Sports? The internet started at research universities and Ames was a backbone at one time. They have an internet. Ask Nick to confirm it next time you see him.”
“Maybe I should go after Nick first, see if he gave Draper any information.”
“No.” Stewart shook her head. Go see Draper first. He’ll be surprised as hell to see you. But only if he though you were dead. If he acts like he was expecting you, you know he planned for it and seized Sarah.”
“What if it’s not him?” Max asked.
“Then we might have a problem.” Stewart said. Hell, she IS leverage against him. I didn’t think he cared anymore, with all this going on.
“You know it’s not about getting back together with her.” Max said.
Stewart laughed, “Max, I’ve been with you nearly as long as you were with her. We progressed from the honeymoon stage to our fiftieth wedding anniversary in two years’ time and now we’re done. You’re my most trusted friend and I have no doubt at all when I perish you will be right there with me, dying too. I have nothing, absolutely nothing but hopes for your happiness. I’m your biggest champion and you’re my most intimate companion. There is no way that will ever change because of what we’ve been through.”
Max nodded. “Okay. I feel the same way. I just…feel like I owe her. That’s all.”
“’bout time you got back around to her, don’t you think?”
He nodded again, “Draper then.”
“Go get him tiger.”
“I’ll help with this mess first. Did you send Gabe to the market? I take it this is Gus’s work?”
“Yes, and yeah.”
“Do you ever wonder sometimes if Gus is just a serial killer and we’re his accomplices, helping clean up the mess?”
“Nope.” Stewart said as she bisected the corpse through the groin, leaving a total of three pieces left to haul inside. “That one goes to 8, I’ll take this to 9. Let’s get these in before lover boy gets back.”